How other countries have used human rights to tackle poverty and how this could be applied in the UK.
People working to tackle poverty in the UK are increasingly interested in using human rights in their work. This study looks at how this has been done in other countries, its impact on affected communities, debate, policy and government programmes, and its relevance for the UK.
The report covers:
This research examines how human rights have been used internationally to shape new conceptions of poverty and new approaches to combating it, and assesses the lessons for the UK.
Human rights and anti-poverty work are rarely integrated, either in UK public policy or among communities experiencing poverty and their allies. Those working to promote human rights and combat poverty have expressed the need to analyse how human rights have been used in anti-poverty strategies in other countries and the potential for applying this in the UK.
Human rights encompass both fundamental values and specific rights; both can be effective in combating poverty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.' These values of equality and dignity underlie rights such as the rights to take part in public affairs, to social security, to an adequate standard of living, and to not be discriminated against. Human rights provide a legal framework – internationally and domestically – that has been used to bring about change that has a direct impact on poverty. Human rights also promote equality and dignity through advocacy and social mobilisation.
The full package of human rights provides a lens through which poverty is seen as multi-dimensional, encompassing not only a low income, but also other forms of deprivation and loss of dignity.
Using human rights entails a shift in perspective from needs and charity to socially and legally guaranteed entitlements and duty: states have legal obligations for which they can be held accountable.
'Normally in the US, rather than being seen as people with rights, the poor are vilified for their poverty, as though it was some sort of morbid lifestyle choice … to define poverty and social inequity as human rights issues helps explain why [that] is so inherently reprehensible…'
National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, United States
Communities and their advocates have, in some contexts, found human rights a powerful antidote to the stigmatisation of people affected by poverty as lazy, fraudulent or the agents of their own downfall. Teachers and activists in the United States, for example, have used human rights to challenge degrading and discriminatory treatment of mainly low-income, black school students.
However, some poorer communities are (at least initially) wary of 'rights talk', seeing it as inaccessible or overly-adversarial – and not necessarily in favour of people experiencing poverty. Both official and public audiences sometimes associate human rights negatively with litigation or with what they perceive as ‘undeserving’ groups. Interviewees emphasised the need to 'translate' human rights so that they resonate with particular audiences. They suggested that words such as dignity and respect command the widest assent.
'None of us knew what human rights meant but we had one thing in common – we felt less than human beings. We began to use the UDHR … to counter the denial and shame of being poor.'
Cheri Honkala, Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, United States
Some communities and their allies said using human rights to mobilise against poverty offers advantages against more top-down and discretionary models. Interviewees in the United States said human rights have attracted new constituencies to anti-poverty work and helped build anti-poverty alliances between groups with different class, race, faith, identity, geography or single-issue affiliations. They described this as one of the most significant insights to emerge from their domestic human rights activism, especially at a time when the impact of economic recession might threaten community cohesion.
One US activist said human rights provided a 'tool of inspiration' to confront the demolition of public housing and measures to criminalise people sleeping rough in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricanes. In France, homeless people mobilised for an enforceable right to housing. In Quebec, Canada, people affected by poverty used human rights to draft a citizens' bill for the elimination of poverty.
'We were doing it not just to have the record corrected … but because it was an opportunity to make human rights real for people … to show them how their issues could be reflected in the international sphere.'
Eric Tars, National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty, United States
Above, a US housing rights activist describes the process of 'shadow reporting' within the UN human rights system – a means of getting domestic poverty issues onto a global stage and galvanising communities affected by poverty. Flavio Valente, former civil society rapporteur on the right to food in Brazil, said shadow reporting and associated social mobilisation had 'forced the state to look' at communities that had hitherto been 'invisible'.
Anti-poverty activists have also adopted (and sometimes adapted) existing 'value-neutral' tools, such as budget analysis and macro-economic policy audits, in order to pursue human rights goals. Citizen engagement in public budgeting has identified and promoted substantive measures to combat poverty. In Mexico, for example, civil society groups identified disproportionate maternal death rates among poorer, indigenous communities as a violation of the government's obligations on the right to health, leading to a ten-fold increase in state funding for obstetric care.
'.. a rights based approach acknowledges the systematic and institutional exclusion of disadvantaged communities from participation in decisions … It also implies that … the processes of changing power relationships are as important as "getting the result".'
Participation and Practice of Rights project, Belfast
Human rights place a premium on how rights are fulfilled, including meaningful opportunities for affected communities to influence decisions. Interviewees said anti-poverty work is strengthened when the experience of people living in poverty is brought directly and systematically to bear on advocacy, policy development and legal strategies. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive acknowledged that engaging with residents of the Seven Towers housing estate in north Belfast through the Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR) project had yielded low-cost solutions to previously intractable problems. PPR said the constructive and participatory work of residents had highlighted that squalid conditions were not down to individual behaviour but chronic problems with the buildings themselves.
'Successful cases are those where demands grow up from the people.'
Steve Kahanovitz, Legal Resources Centre, South Africa
Constitutional and other laws protecting civil, political and socio-economic rights have achieved results in tackling poverty in some contexts. Human rights gains in the courts might not change policy and practice without strategies to ensure monitoring and implementation, including sustained social mobilisation. Successful campaigns in South Africa, India and Nigeria have combined litigation with social action by affected communities and their allies outside the courtroom. However, interviewees cautioned that litigation is a strategy of last resort. Litigation can produce a defensive reaction on the part of governments and some judgments may not be generalisable in a way that tackles the systemic causes of poverty.
Where governments use human rights as an anti-poverty tool, they do so episodically. Rarely are human rights at the core of a government's anti-poverty work. Some governments have used human rights to bring coherence to – and permit prioritisation within – policies and programmes to tackle poverty (as with Scotland’s homelessness law) and to set transparent targets to measure progress (as with the right to water in South Africa). In the UK, the use of human rights in anti-poverty strategies is rare – with some exceptions in the devolved administrations, including strategies to promote children’s rights in Wales.
Some NGOs, especially those working in international development, view themselves as having human rights responsibilities. Some have used human rights to analyse the root causes of poverty and, in some contexts, to transform their working processes and goals. Evaluation of this work indicates that it achieves more sustainable outcomes and gives more political power to those experiencing poverty.
Informed by UK seminars with people active in human rights and/or anti-poverty work, the authors have identified several policy areas where international experience could be used to influence policy and public attitudes towards both poverty and human rights.
The authors propose action to develop understanding of the impact of integrating human rights and anti-poverty work in the UK, and to strengthen integration where positive impact has been identified outside the UK. These steps include:
This research comprised a comprehensive review of literature on the connection between human rights and poverty eradication; 28 interviews with people active in using human rights in anti-poverty work internationally; and seminars in London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff involving 77 people active in human rights and/or anti-poverty work.